Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

HFAC staff moves


Several recent changes and promotions underway among the House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff.

Daniel Silverberg, formerly deputy general counsel and a former Pentagon official, has been named general counsel of the committee minority staff, following the departure of Shanna Winters for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Janice Kaguyutan was promoted to chief counsel from deputy chief counsel.

Long time HFAC top Middle East advisor Alan Makovsky has left the committee staff, with plans to go teach in Turkey, according to two Hill staffers. His deputy Robert Marcus is expected to succeed him as top Middle East advisor upon his return from paternity leave, staffers say.

Daniel Harsha, recently back from paternity leave, has been made communications director.

Jason Steinbaum was named as staff director in January, after former Rep. Howard Berman’s staff director went over to Senate Homeland Security.

Meantime, two HFAC staffers have joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff: arms sales and non proliferation advisor David Fite, and former communications director Adam Sharon.

Staffers are overall upbeat about the committee, and say relations between chair Ed Royce (R-California) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-New York), are relatively smooth and professional.

Engel, in a letter Monday, critiqued the military options for Syria presented by top army officer Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggesting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may have overstated the costs and risks of limited air strikes.

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131 House members sign letter supporting U.S. diplomacy with Iran (Updated)

Updated 7/19:

Some 131 House members have signed onto a bipartisan letter calling on President Obama to try to advance opportunities for a diplomatic resolution with Iran in the wake of the election of Hassan Rouhani last month.

The letter, being circulated by Representatives David Price (D-North Carolina) and Charles Dent (R-Pennsylvania), is the biggest ever pro-Iran diplomacy letter from the Hill, those supporting the initiative said.

Shawn Millan, a spokesperson for Rep. Dent's office, told the Back Channel the letter had gotten 131 House members to sign on as of Friday afternoon, 17 of them Republican, 114 of them Democratic. (Full list of signatories below the jump.)

“This is not the first time that Iran has elected a president on a platform of moderation and reform, and history advises us to be cautious about the prospects for meaningful change,” the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter signed by Reps. Price and Dent states.

“Even so, given the stakes involved for the United States, Israel, and the international community, it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Price and Dent wrote.

Though the letter doesn't take a position on sanctions or the possible use of military force by the United States or its allies, it cautions that “we must also be careful not to foreclose the possibility of such progress by taking provocative actions that could weaken the newly elected president’s standing relative to Iran’s hardliners.” It also says that while members may have different views about those issues, “we should all be able to agree on the need for a renewed diplomatic push as part of our broader strategy toward Iran.”

The United States expects nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 to resume in the fall, following Rouhani's inauguration next month and the appointment of a new Iranian nuclear negotiating team, a senior US official said last week.

Meantime, former US diplomats William Luers and Thomas Pickering this week urged Obama to consider sending Rouhani a note of congratulations upon his inauguration, in a piece advocating ways the U.S. could try to reinvigorate diplomacy with Iran.

“Pressure has helped get Iran to negotiate; but diplomatic negotiation cannot succeed unless each side gets some of what it needs and unless each side comes to believe that the other wants an agreement and is willing to comply with it,” Luers, Pickering and MIT's Jim Walsh wrote, at the New York Review of Books. “With innovative and assertive diplomacy, the Obama administration can, in our view, still help change the direction of US–Iran relations, reach an interim nuclear agreement, and possibly open the door to discussions on other regional and bilateral issues.”

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